Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963) was one of the leading thinkers of the post–World War II conservative intellectual movement. Best known for his landmark book Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver was a scholar and rhetorician who taught English at the University of Chicago for almost thirty years. Here he offers insights on the meaning and purpose of liberal education—insights even more relevant today than when Weaver first offered them.
The greatest school that ever existed, it has been said, consisted of Socrates standing on a street corner with one or two interlocutors. If this remark strikes the average American as merely a bit of fancy, that is because education here today suffers from an unprecedented amount of aimlessness and confusion. This is not to suggest that education in the United States, as compared with other countries, fails to command attention and support. In our laws we have endorsed it without qualification, and our provision for it, despite some claims to the contrary, has been on a lavish scale. But we behold a situation in which, as the educational plants become larger and more finely appointed, what goes on in them becomes more diluted, less serious, less effective in training mind and character; and correspondingly what comes out of them becomes less equipped for the rigorous tasks of carrying forward an advanced civilization.
Recently I attended a conference addressed by a retired general who had some knowledge of this country’s ballistics program. He pointed out that of the twenty-five top men concerned with our progress in this now vital branch of science, not more than two or three were Americans. The others were Europeans, who had received in their European educations the kind of theoretical discipline essential to the work of getting the great missiles aloft. It was a sad commentary on a nation which has prided itself on giving its best to the schools.
It is an educational breakdown which has occurred. Our failure in these matters traces back to a failure to think hard about the real province of education. Most Americans take a certain satisfaction in regarding themselves as tough-minded when it comes to successful ways of doing things and positive achievements. But in deciding what is and is not pertinent to educating the individual, far too many of them have been softheads.
An alarming percentage of our citizens, it is to be feared, stop with the word “education” itself. It is for them a kind of conjuror’s word, which is expected to work miracles by the very utterance. If politics become selfish and shortsighted, the cure that comes to mind is “education.” If juvenile delinquency is rampant, “education” is expected to provide the remedy. If the cultural level of popular entertainment declines, “education” is thought of hopefully as the means of arresting the downward trend. People expect to be saved by a word when they cannot even give content to the word.
The liberally educated individual is the man who is at home in the world of ideas. And because he has achieved a true selfhood by realizing that he is a creature of free choice, he can select among ideas in the light of the relations he has found to obtain among them. Just as he is not the slave of another man, with his freedom of choice of work taken from him, so he is not the slave of .a political state, shielded by his “superiors” from contact with error and evil. The idea of virtue is assimilated and grows into character through exercise, which means freedom of action in a world in which not all things are good. This truth has never been put more eloquently than by the poet Milton.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the rare, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
Freedom and goodness finally merge in this conception; the unfreeman cannot be good because virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, and if this latter is taken away, there is simply no way for goodness to assert itself. The moment we judge the smallest action in terms ofright and wrong, we are stepping up to a plane where the good is felt as an imperative, even though it can be disobeyed. When education is seen as culminating in this, we can cease troubling about its failure to accomplish this or that incidental objective. An awareness of the order of the goods will take careof many things which are now felt as unresolvable difficulties, and wewill have advanced once more as far as Socrates when he made the young Athenians aware that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Read the rest over at The Imaginative Conservative.